The political and cultural centre of Poland until the end of the 16th century, Wawel Royal Castle, also known as Zamek Wawelski is, like Wawel Cathedral, the very symbol of Poland's national identity. The original, rather small residence of the Zamek Wawelski was built in the early 11th century by King Bolesław Chrobry beside t he chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary (known as the Rotunda of SS Felix and Adauctus). King Kazimierz Wielki turned it into a formidable Gothic castle, but when it burned down in 1499, King Zygmunt Stary commissioned a new residence. Within 30 years a splendid Renaissance palace, designed by Italian architects, was in place. Despite further extensions and alterations, the 3-store Renaissance structure, complete with a courtyard arcaded on three sides, has been preserved to this day.
Repeatedly sacked and vandalized by the Swedish and Prussian armies, the castle was occupied after the Third Partition by the Austrians, who intended to make Wawel a citadel. Their plan included turning the castle into barracks, and the cathedral into a garrison church, moving the royal tombs elsewhere. They never got that far but they did turn the royal kitchen and coach house into a military hospital and razed two churches standing at the outer courtyard to make room for a parade ground. They also enveloped the whole hill with a new ring of massive brick walls, largely ruining the original Gothic fortifications. The castle was recovered by Poles after WWI and the restoration began immediately and continued up until the outbreak of WWII. The work was resumed after the war and has been able to recover a good deal of the castle's earlier external form and its interior decoration.
Wavel Royal Castle is on Wawel Hill, a short walk from the Old Town or you can catch tram number 10. Make sure you validate your ticket on the tram - plain clothes inspectors are vigilant in Krakow. The castle is now a museum containing 5 separate sections, each requiring a different ticket that is valid for a specific time. There's a limited daily quota of tickets for some parts, so arrive early if you want to see everything or phone ahead to reserve. You will need a ticket even on 'free' days (Mondays in summer).